Omicron has spread across the United States like a wildfire, with unprecedented transmissibility and efficiency. According to Chief Medical Advisor to the President. Anthony Fauci, it is likely that Omicron will find “just about everybody.” The strain is less fatal, but healthcare facilities are still buckling under a nursing crisis. Hospitalization rates have skyrocketed past previous records, while Omicron patients make up 98% of all COVID cases. Healthcare workers can expect many challenges and changes in the days ahead.
Turnover has always been a problem in healthcare, but the beginning of the pandemic escalated the problem. According to a poll conducted by the International Council of Nurses, 90% of National Nurses Associations (NNAs) were concerned that stress and burnout coming from the extreme workload would lead to increased turnover in the coming years. Presently, nurses are retiring at an unprecedented rate. Taking into account existing RN shortages, the workforce aging out and the effect of COVID-19, the ICN posits that 13 million nurses would be needed to fill in the nurse shortage gap, in the future.
The surge of Omicron cases will likely accelerate this nursing staff shortage, if left unchecked. Neil Sehgal, a professor from University of Maryland School of Public Health, began questioning “whether or not this was the week the healthcare system would break.”
Thanks to Omicron’s highly mutated and contagious nature, it can more easily infect vaccinated individuals than any other strain. Whether or not they are symptomatic, nurses will be forced to isolate at home for a couple of days. Hospitals will have to account for the sudden RN shortage, thus complicating matters even further.
Even before Omicron, demand for nursing was trending upwards. Nurse staffing demand saw an increase of 245% (around 50,000 nurses) from September 2020 to December 2020. One year later, finding healthcare staff is still harder than it has ever been. On top of the record turnover, facilities have to account for nurses who were sidelined by the Omicron variant. This can be especially tough for hospitals in small rural communities. As a result, demand for nurses has soared. Openings for healthcare jobs are currently double their pandemic lows.
Following LPN, RN and CNA shortages (just to name a few), hospitals are struggling to retain staff. As a direct result, Wages have skyrocketed, across the board. Last November alone, labor expenses per patient was 26% higher than they were two years ago. LPNs and NAs in particular saw a significant 9.4% and 5.7% increase in hourly earnings. Meanwhile, RNs saw a non-significant increase of 2.0%. Traveling nurses and per-diem nurses will especially benefit, since they can serve as last-minute solutions to staff shortages. Salaries for temporary healthcare jobs have risen throughout the pandemic, and have even doubled during notable spikes.
That we are in a nursing crisis is undeniable. The spike in Omicron cases is pushing facilities and staff to their limits. There is no doubt that nurses are being tested like they never have before. As bad as the situation currently is, though, there are still silver linings. Between the rise in demand for nurses and the salary increase, there are a slew of opportunities for HCPs willing to weather the storm. It is a turbulent time to be an HCP, yet in some ways that is the most exciting part.